Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays – some from Hurley’s blog, some written specifically for this volume – about oppression of all shapes and sizes, in geek culture specifically and the Western world more generally. There’s a lot about feminism, including her Hugo-award winning essay “We Have Always Fought”. But there are also essays about racism (“What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Race in America”) and classism (“The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live”)  and the abuse of creators’ power (“Let It Go”). In short, it’s a collection covering anything and everything in geek culture and beyond that challenges the white male status quo.

Like all of Hurley’s work, and despite the insinuations of the cheerfully irreverent cover, it is not a book that offers easy answers. Which is to say, it does not peddle the brand of upbeat geeky feminist positivity channelled by books like Sam Maggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy (though, don’t get me wrong, that kind of work has a place too); it’s a book whose focus is squarely in revolution, and all the blood and sweat and tears that real revolutions entail.

A central theme of Hurley’s is perseverance, endurance, persistence: the work that’s involved in Being a Writer, in being a responsible creator, in fighting the system’s biases – sometimes just in surviving. The collection weaves personal material in with its politics: so we have, for example, the harrowing “The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance”, which should be required reading for everyone with an influence on health policy on both sides of the pond, sitting alongside “Becoming What You Hate”, a short piece about the controversial blogger Requires Hate and the ethics of assumed identities on the internet. This is generally symptomatic of the book’s eclectic approach: while notionally it’s divided into four sections – “Level Up”, “Geek”, “Let’s Get Personal” and “Revolution” – to be honest I’m not sure how meaningful these distinctions are. The message of all of them – if there is a single message – is simply that the fight for equality is not over, and perhaps never will be; that after every victory there are countless battles yet to fight.

On a personal note, and weirdly, I found this idea comforting rather than dispiriting. I think there’s a cultural narrative in the West – it’s quite a capitalist narrative really – which casts life as a quest for something specific, whether that’s a dream job or a perfect partner or a social life that makes Kim Kardashian seem like a stay-at-home, a quest at which you either succeed and become immediately happy and graceful and self-confident, or fail and remain a miserable loser for the rest of your life. Hurley’s collection, with its stories of personal and political endurance, is a counter-cry to that narrative, reminds us that the great story of the world is not, in fact, about us as individuals at all. We’re more like those extras at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields who maybe get to stab an orc or two, if we’re lucky. After every victory, there’s always another battle to fight: so it’s OK, actually, not to be OK all the time. It’s OK to cut ourselves some slack, so long as we pick up that sword again after a while and keep fighting.

After all: we have always fought. And we always will.

Doctor Who Review: Smile

This review contains spoilers.

This is not going to be a Moffat-rant. Surprisingly enough, I actually didn’t hate Smile; partly, I suspect, because it wasn’t actually written by Stephen Moffat (it springs from the pen of Frank Cottrell-Boyce), but mostly because it feels very much like Davies-era Who. Bill and the Doctor rock up in the future, on the first colony of Earth, Erehwon. The Doctor rhapsodises about the optimism that built this shining white city, the garden-of-Eden promise of a brand-new planet; but where are all the people?

After some investigation, it turns out that the skeleton crew who were to prepare the city in advance of the colonists’ arrival have been turned into fertiliser by the Vardies, the robots built to keep the humans happy. The Vardies communicate through emojis, hence the episode’s title; they’ve killed the humans because they identified grief as the enemy of happiness and decided to eradicate it. Which is a bit of a bummer for all concerned.

And now, the real colonists are waking up from their long cryo-sleep, ready to walk into a city that will kill them.

So, as I said, it’s a pretty standard findy-outy episode, recycling old Who tropes – sinister robots who just want to help, a utopian dream gone horribly wrong, an inexplicably deserted city – and combining them with some convincing extrapolation (the multi-purpose nano-robots are orders of magnitude more plausible than anything that usually makes its way into Doctor Who) to make a plot that actually makes a surprising amount of sense and doesn’t rely on The World Being Saved By Love. The ending, which has the Doctor realising that the Vardies are now a sentient species, resetting their memories so they don’t remember the colonists so won’t try to kill them, and negotiating peace between the two factions, feels similarly like classic Who: a balance between the moral imperative of pacifism and the Doctor’s particular brand of gung-ho problem-solving.

I do have some Thoughts on the episode, though, which I think are more about inherent biases than the rampant misogyny that characterises some of Steven Moffat’s episodes. See, the premise of Smile, and in particular its ending, is that the Vardies aren’t evil; they’re just different (much like the puddle of oil in The Pilot). In other words, it’s a story about competing cultures, about profound cultural difference and how that can manifest.

This is a laudable project, of course: stories in which genuine difference is celebrated, or at least presented as something we can live with, are rare in SF novels, let alone genre television. I just think it’s rather muddily executed.

In particular, Smile specifically refers tp the culture clash involved in colonialism: the Doctor refers to the Vardies as the “indigenous species”, with the humans as colonists. And there’s an interesting little reflection, perhaps, on the idea that difference is socially constructed as the Vardies’ cultural difference was literally constructed, built into them, by humans. But that particular metaphorical construction becomes problematic in conjunction with the Doctor’s mind-wipe of the Vardies – and only the Vardies – at the end of the episode. Sure, the Vardies get to earn rent from their human creators, seemingly reversing the dynamics of colonialist exploitation. But this seeming reversal is only achieved by a much more problematic forcible erasure of the Vardies’ racial memory.

Sure, the Vardies won’t kill any more humans. But the humans have reason to kill the Vardies too, yet they get to keep the memory of their grudge. If the Doctor can talk the humans out of genocide, why can’t he do the same for the Vardies? Or, if mind-wipe is necessary, why can’t he mind-wipe the humans, too? Or, why does the story have to end with the humans living in the Vardies’ city?

And there’s the rub. The episode can’t, or won’t, get away from the fact that the Vardies were built by humans. Despite the Doctor’s protestations to the contrary, the narrative refuses to budge from the idea that the city belongs to the humans, and not to the sentient Vardies. It’s split, awkwardly, between superficially declaiming a post-colonialist happy ending and structurally re-enacting colonialist atrocity.

This split is performed, it seems to me, by an interesting little bit of self-inconsistency at the level of the plot. If the Vardies aren’t evil, only different – if they think they’re doing good by murdering people – why do they use an obviously evil emoji? The writer wants us to see cultural difference; the story, which has so much more inertia, tells us to see evil. There’s a salutary lesson about unconscious bias in there.

Next week, the Frost Fair on the Thames! I’m looking forward to it.

Doctor Who Review: The Pilot

Y’know, every year I manage to forget how tedious Capaldi’s Doctor is.

Happily, every year Steven Moffat is here to remind us.

The Pilot, the first episode of the new series, introduces us to the Doctor’s new companion Bill, an intelligent, sassy woman working in a university canteen. For unknown but probably boring and stupid reasons, the Doctor is undercover as a lecturer at the university. He spots Bill illicitly attending his lectures, and plucks her from intellectual obscurity to become his protegee.

Bill is, also, the first openly gay Doctor Who companion (depending on whether you count Jack Harkness as a proper companion). Which is wonderful, not only because it means that her entire character won’t be based around her flirting with him. Only, well, her entire first episode is based around her sexuality.

See, the monster of the week is a puddle of spaceship engine oil that shapeshifts to be whatever it needs to be. It possesses a young woman at the university, Heather, who (quite poignantly) can only think of getting away from wherever she happens to be at any one time – so she unwittingly, uniwllingly becomes the titular pilot. Heather and Bill just happen to have met at a night out recently, and have a crush on each other, which is why Possessed Heather starts following Bill around and trying to possess her too…

I mean, obviously the gay love interest becomes a sad, emotionally rapacious alien, right? And obviously the very first love story about the first gay companion is a Bury Your Gays story in which Heather loses her humanity.

I mean…really, Moffat? This is how you choose to introduce the new companion?

To compound matters, Moffat seems to be setting up another storyline in which the woman is a mystery to be solved by the Doctor. And this will make up the entirety of her character arc. Why does the camera look so pointedly at the photograph of Susan Foreman on the Doctor’s desk when Bill is mentioned? Where did the Doctor get the photographs of her dead mother from? Why did the vault’s “friends only” security setting let her through? (Thanks to Den of Geek for reminding me of these questions.) Just Who Is Bill?

We went through all this with Clara, and it was tedious then. We do not need another fucking Impossible Girl. How about a female character whose history and character arc is not contingent on the Doctor?

And, oh, the Twelfth Doctor is so tedious. We’re told that his lectures are amazingly inspiring, drawing lots of people who aren’t even supposed to attend them. But the one we see isn’t really a lecture at all: it’s a bombastic monologue about the nature of time, a metaphor that doesn’t refer to anything around it. The Doctor patronises Bill. He gets her enrolled in the university, without any kind of selection process or oversight from the wider faculty. He embodies nepotistic privilege, the behind-closed-doors dealing that does no-one any favours in the long run. He tells Bill exactly what’s best for her – as if she, an adult woman, couldn’t make her own decisions. He’s manipulative and paternalistic and controlling.

Yes, to some extent this has always been the case. It’s part of the Doctor’s character to know more than anyone else in the room, and to assume that, therefore, he knows best. The difference is that Moffat seems to think his superior attitude is okay. The gaze of the camera, the companion, the audience is not ironising or critical (as it was when Rose Tyler was around, or Donna Noble, or Romana, or even Amy Pond – the role of all of whom was to question, to act as conscience for the Doctor); it’s overwhelmingly idolising. The Doctor is now the centre of the universe – and not just in his own head any more.

There are brief moments of resistance: the way Bill’s face hardens when the Doctor dismisses her catering job; her appeal to him when he’s about to wipe her mind of memories of the TARDIS. “Imagine how you’d feel if it were you.” It’s these that give me a little hope that this series things might be different – that this series, the Doctor’s companion will get to be a person instead of a mystery.

Next week, what looks to be a classic deserted-city story, with emoji robots. As ever, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Review: The House of Shattered Wings

This review contains spoilers.

The House of Shattered Wings is an angel book. Angel books were quite in vogue a couple of years ago, which just goes to show how far behind the cresting wave of Current Literature I am – I also read Daughter of Smoke and Bone earlier this year, which is another angel book with some similarities to this one.

Aliette de Bodard’s novel is set in a secondary world that looks almost exactly like ours – except that it’s inhabited by immortals from all cultures. In Europe, that means the Fallen: angels cast out of God’s City for reasons they can’t remember. These Fallen angels band together into Houses, vast feudal units served by humans, constantly jockeying for position. Chief among them is Morningstar, head of House Silverspires and the most powerful Fallen around.
Around about 1920, a minor tiff between the Houses erupts into all-out magical war, a cataclysm that lays waste to most of Europe. The novel takes place sixty years after this Great War, in a post-apocalyptic Belle Epoque Paris ruled (still) by the Houses, with petty gangs and single humans eking out a meagre life in the gaps between their politics.

So: a newly Fallen angel, Isabelle, is taken to House Silverspires, rescued from the gangs who will carve her body up for its potent magic given half a chance. With her is taken Philippe, who has drunk her blood for the same reason, creating a connection between them that neither really understands. Philippe looks like a human from the colonies – specifically, what we would call Vietnam – but he also seems to have impossible powers, powers which intrigue the new head of Silverspires Selene enough to bind him to the House.

But Philippe unwittingly unleashes a curse into the House, one which promptly begins killing people. The novel sees the various actors of Silverspires trying to navigate this new threat, to trace the curse back to its roots and destroy it, before the manoeuvrings of the other Houses bring down Silverspires altogether.

Our most obvious entry point into the novel is Philippe, who operates as observer, malcontent, disruptor, Other in terms of House society. His reading of the House social system is essentially a post-colonialist one. During the Great War, the Houses raided their colonies abroad for soldiers to die in their name; the survivors were left to fend for themselves in a strange country, with little hope of ever going home. This is Philippe’s backstory, and in his view the guiding principle of the House system – that everything is done “for the good of the House” – is a sterile philosophy that only creates cycles of oppression and betrayal. The Houses destroyed the world, using other people as things in their pursuit of greater power, greater privilege.

This is powerfully imagined: I love stories which recognise the role institutions and systems play in perpetuating oppression. And, further, this picture is complicated by the fact that we have access to those within the House – and, of course, by the extraordinary symbolic freight the angels carry. The figure of Morningstar, former head of Silverspires, hangs heavy over the text: and Morningstar is only another name for Lucifer.

How do we read this – especially in the context of what Philippe does for the text? A starting point, perhaps, is to point to Paradise Lost, that ur-text of Western fantasy fiction. In one sense, we’re receiving a post-colonial reading of Paradise Lost, one which highlights the Westernised narrowness of its cosmogony. (The Fallen literally cannot comprehend Philippe, because his powers – as it turns out, a result of his becoming a Vietnamese immortal – don’t fit into their world-view; because to them, to Christianity, they do not exist.) The Fall of Adam and Eve – caused, remember, by Lucifer – is the West’s ur-apocalypse, to coin a phrase; how interesting, then, to reframe it from a non-Western perspective.

I think, though, we can make more of the perspectives we get from Selene and Isabelle, the reasons they give us for Silverspires’ existence. To them, Paris is fundamentally unsafe. Without the Houses, the Fallen will be destroyed by the magic-hungry gangs. To Selene especially, protecting the newly Fallen, like Isabelle, and the House’s human dependents, is everything. And to Isabelle, the House is a place of safety; for her, too, that’s enough to justify the cycle of betrayal and tragedy. De Bodard pulls off an extremely neat trick here: she has us sympathise with the arguments of Selene and Isabelle, rooting for the survival of House Silverspires, because they are all we know in this disorienting post-apocalyptic world, and we cling as readers to them; and so we too are complicit in the cycles of oppression the Houses perpetuate. And we too have to face Philippe’s questions: what the fuck are the Houses for? What good do they do? Why don’t we do anything about them? (This is really very similar to what Milton does in Paradise Lost when he makes Satan sympathetic: we become complicit in his evil, and so have to answer God’s judgement.)

And one more level: the Fallen have no idea why they are fallen, and neither do we. What’s going on in the heavenly City? Doesn’t God’s abandonment of the angels make Him culpable of the power plays going on on Earth? Are the Fallen just as much victims as oppressors?

And does that absolve them?

This is a novel which asks questions rather than answering them. It doesn’t have any solutions to the undoubtedly abusive power structures that the Houses perpetuate: in many ways, those at the top of the heap are as trapped as those at the bottom. For me, it felt a little airless – partly, I suspect, because I don’t read that many thrillers, which is what The House of Shattered Wings is at root. There are sequels, though, and I’d be happy to revisit these decadent, lost angels in their city stranded in time.

Ten Popular Authors I’ve Never Read

  1. E.L. James. And I’m fairly sure I don’t want to: it’s so saturated into popular culture as a Trashy Book (not to mention Rapey Book) that I wouldn’t be able to look past the trashiness (and the rapeyness).
  2. Jim Butcher. I’ve sort of vaguely been meaning to read the Dresden Files for a while now, and I will! Eventually! When I forget that the last person who recommended them to me also expressed admiration for Orson Scott Card and surprise that a woman might be able to write space opera. Awkward.
  3. Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is one of those things which I sort of always mean to pick up but which always seems less interesting than other things in the shop. One day.
  4. Ursula K. LeGuin. I know that she is one of the founding mothers of modern fantasy, but I’ve never felt very drawn to her work. Sorry.
  5. James Herbert. Nuh-uh. I cannot deal with horror stories. Unless they are called House of Leaves or written by Marisha Pessl. And sometimes not even then.
  6. Jodi Picoult. It’s just not the genre I read in, or have any particular interest in reading.
  7. Cassandra Clare. I mean, Clare is quite infamously a plagiarist, and her books sound very extruded-fantasy-product-ish.
  8. Franz Kafka. I will read Metamorphosis one day. Probably.
  9. Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s on my mind because of the Tournament of Books, really. There is a small chance that I will read Purity, but I probably won’t.
  10. Lois McMaster Bujold. I will start the Vorkosigan saga this year! I do believe in fairies!

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Blood of Tyrants

Blood of Tyrants is the eighth in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series; there’s just one novel left to go. Which is interesting, because although it trundles on in much the same manner as the preceding books have, it also brings some things into focus, I assume in order to set up for the Grand Finale.

It sees Our Hero, Captain William Laurence of the Aerial Corps, washed overboard during a sea voyage to China. He’s washed up onto the shores of Japan, a country notorious for its hostility to foreigners; what’s more, he’s lost all memory of the Aerial Corps and thinks he’s still a navy captain with a fiancee and the prospect of an illustrious career.

The novel alternates between his perspective, navigating an utterly alien culture with no idea of how he came to be there, and that of Temeraire, who of course is beside himself at Laurence’s loss and is determined to find him – much to the dismay of the captains of the other dragons.

That’s not the interesting bit, though. The interesting bit is what happens later, when Laurence and Temeraire are eventually reunited: they find themselves leading a vast contingent of Chinese dragons into Russia, where Napoleon’s forces are threatening to crush the thinning list of Britain’s allies. A key plot point here is the Russians’ abominable treatment of their dragons, who (in direct contrast to the Chinese dragons, who have citizenship and titles and wealth) are kept hobbled in breeding grounds, or starved as couriers, unless they happen to be heavyweights, who are merely bribed with large piles of gold instead. The Russians are afraid of their dragons: afraid of going back to days when feral dragons would prey upon vulnerable villages and carry off maidens to eat, etc. A particularly nasty French tactic is to make this story come true, setting the starved, imprisoned dragons free to carry off Russian supplies and, in many cases, Russian fighters. The French general who leads this tactic offers up the defence that the Russian treatment of the dragons is clearly wrong; Laurence agrees, but thinks to himself that to redress that wrong in this manner, which can only make the dragons’ lot worse in the long run by making the Russians turn against them, is irresponsible.

This ending, then, really brings into focus, retroactively, what the series has been about, and where its final battles (so to speak) will be fought. It’s clear that the Napoleonic Wars, far from being background political detail, are central to Novik’s plot; it’s also clear that dragons, and specifically the treatment of dragons, is key to resolving the wars. Those cultures that respect dragons – France and China, mainly – are stronger; those that fear them – chiefly Britain and Russia – have a harder time.

Why’s that interesting? Well, I think that what’s been going on across the arc of the series is a kind of socio-cultural disintegration. Early in the series, I suggested that it might be depicting a change from an Augustan social culture to a Romantic, individualistic one; from one based on shame to one based on personal guilt. I think we can broaden that reading a little. Laurence is changing, thanks to his encounter with the Other, in the form of Temeraire. His amnesia is a symbol of the disintegration of his social identity, the total destabilisation of all his cultural touchstones, as a result of that encounter; even when his memory is inevitably restored, the gulf between the man he was and the man he is is unbridgeable. A central tension of Blood of Tyrants involves him re-learning of his own treason at the end of Empire of Ivory: before he recovers his memory, he cannot fathom why he would have done such a thing. It’s a stark reminder of how far he has come from the Regency Everyman of Temeraire.

And the world is changing, too. The total destabilisation of Laurence’s amnesia is reflected on a grand scale in the global destabilisation enacted through the Napoleonic Wars, which have affected every continent Laurence has visited in the course of the series. Really, it’s a destabilisation of history: because Novik’s been writing in not only her dragons, the Other that has changed everything, but also everyone else who has been written out of history – the female officer, the black officer, the gay officer, the unmarried lovers, the woman who decides her own prospects, a whole swathe of sophisticated non-Western cultures. Not only does her fictional world have to change radically to accommodate a new reality in which dragons are key citizens whose treatment can decide the very fate of nations (just as Laurence is astonished and dismayed to learn of his treason, we are astonished and dismayed to return to Europe and find dragons being mistreated, as they were in Britain towards the beginning of the series); our own shared notions of history have to change radically, disintegrate and be rebuilt, to fit in what had previously been alien.

This is fascinating. And if this is the series’ denouement, I can’t wait to read its finale.

Top Ten Subversive Female Characters

In honour of International Women’s Day.

Also, the Tournament of Books has started! Unfortunately I cannot honour both at once, but you should definitely go read the Tournament – it is wonderful and thoughtful and, yes, subversive.

  1. Alana – Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Alana’s a fighter and a mother and a lover. She’s determined not to give up her own identity and her own right to defend herself; and her right, too, to fall in love with whomever the hell she likes. She’s sassy and sexy and vulnerable and real.
  2. Nyx – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Honestly, Nyx is not really a nice person. In fact, she’s utterly ruthless, ready to kill and betray to protect herself. But she’s bisexual and forthright and defiantly, unapologetically female.
  3. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. Ignore the film version: book Adora is not going to be shoehorned into the sentimentalities of traditional romance. If she’s going to date someone, it will be on her terms.
  4. Lyra Belacqua – Northern Lights, Philip Pullman. Lyra is not good. She is not pretty, or honest, or nice. She is loyal, though, and fierce, and clever. And she knows what’s right and wrong.
  5. Mosca Mye – Fly By Night, Frances Hardinge. Mosca’s very much in the mould of Lyra. She’s a liar. She runs away from her family. She has a pet goose. She’s nothing that a girl is expected to be: but she thinks for herself, and she works to make things better for others.
  6. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling. Again: Hermione’s not pretty. Nor is she, particularly, a fighter. But she’s clever, and brave in her own way, and she works almost behind the scenes to bring Voldemort down.
  7. Emily Roland – the Temeraire series, Naomi Novik. She’s a female aviator, and not particularly showy about it: matter-of-factly in love with a dragon captain she can’t marry, and straightforward about having sex with him; quietly convinced, in defiance of society’s surprise, of her being just as competent as her male counterparts.
  8. Sonmi-451 – Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Sonmi is quietly, cold-bloodedly defiant and brave. She knows that she has been lied to and manipulated, and she knows what her future is. And still, she goes on, because she also knows that she’s sowing the seeds of rebellion.
  9. Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Katniss may not be a subtle revolutionary, but I think that the fact that she has no good choices and no real good ending makes her important in YA.
  10. Yalda – The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan. What makes Yalda so interesting is that her rebellion is about doing science: creating space for her and her friends to have a meaningful intellectual life, while fighting their biology to give themselves a future.